Bipolar disorder affects at least 2% of American adults every year, causing huge fluctuations in mood. While the timing of these mood shifts depends on the person, the key components are mania and depression. The manic phase can feel exciting and empowering at first, though it is also often accompanied by risky behaviors. In contrast, the depressive phase is commonly characterized by low energy levels, plummeting self-esteem, and a lack of interest in previously loved activities. Medication is of great help to many, but social support is incredibly important as well. If you know someone with this distressing mental health issue, here are eight ways you can help.
1. Understand the type of bipolar disorder they have
There are two broad categories of bipolar disorder—bipolar I and bipolar II. If you’re close to someone with bipolar I, they likely have manic episodes and may have occasional depressive episodes (though not all do). They may also have mixed episodes during which they may feel depressed when doing something that’s normally enjoyable, or feel manic when they’re doing something that’s normally unstimulating.
Meanwhile, those with bipolar II sometimes go undiagnosed for longer, because the mania they experience is briefer and less intense—they may just seem to be going through a particularly optimistic, lively, and fun phase. However, they also tend to have lengthy and significant depressive episodes, so are often misdiagnosed as having depression alone. Both mania and depression can also come with psychotic symptoms, such as paranoia or delusions.
Knowing the type of bipolar disorder diagnosis your loved one has received can help you find the right reading materials required to learn more, and can assist you in seeing any signs that their medication isn’t working properly.
2. Work out plans for the future
If the person you’re supporting is a family member or partner, you don’t want to end up in the chaotic situation of not knowing what to do if the symptoms of bipolar disorder re-emerge or worsen. Consequently, it’s smart to sit down with your loved one when they’re feeling relatively stable and agree on a clear, explicit plan that outlines what to do if an intense manic or depressive phase develops (as well as who to contact in different types of emergencies—the individual’s psychiatrist may be especially relevant here). It may also be useful to have this plan written down by your loved one, so it can be shown and used to facilitate rational persuasion if symptoms start spiraling out of control.
3. Offer encouragement when it comes to treatment
Some people have few if any side effects when taking their prescribed medication, but others may struggle to stick to their daily doses because they don’t like how the drugs make them feel. Be there as a voice of encouragement, gently reminding them of the fact that the pros outweigh the cons. In addition, those whose manic phases have involved excessive recreational drug or alcohol intake may need someone championing their attempts to stay away from substance abuse.
4. Don’t blame everything on the disorder…
Your loved one is more than their mental health condition—don’t assume that every difficult emotion or challenging opinion is a product of a bipolar disorder. When you come into conflict, think twice about asking if they’re taking their medication or asserting that the anger or upset experienced is all down to an increase in their symptoms.
5. …but do be alert
Although you should always look past the disorder and see the person, being close to someone who is bipolar does put you in a unique position to notice changes that may matter a great deal. For example, if you notice a pattern of two or three days where your loved one seems increasingly agitated or flat, think about tactfully querying this in a non-judgmental way.
6. Avoid blame
Your loved one needs to know you don’t think it’s their fault that they have bipolar disorder. They may say things you find offensive when their symptoms get worse, and it’s important you accept later attempts to make amends and acknowledge that you understand they are embarrassed or apologetic. During a manic phase, in particular, hurt are most likely symptoms of the illness, not instances of deliberate cruelty.
7. Ask what you can do
When things get difficult for the person with bipolar disorder, note that you’re there to help and simply ask what you can do. Don’t underestimate the power of small gestures that relieve burdens, such as helping with tasks around the house, assisting with childcare, or being there to provide comfort before an important appointment. Stress is a major exacerbating factor for bipolar disorder, so doing relaxing things together can also be very useful (e.g. going for a massage, taking a walk, or seeing a light-hearted movie).
8. Know your own limits
Finally, don’t take sole responsibility for another person’s care—it’s vital that you remain part of a wider support system. Be aware that you have your own needs and limits, and that witnessing manic or depressive episodes will take a toll on you. Personal therapy can be helpful, as can couple’s therapy if you’re living with a partner who has bipolar disorder.